Mata, Fellaini help United inch closer to English League Cup final

Manchester United's Juan Mata, right, celebrates with teammates after scoring the opening goal of the game during the English League Cup semifinal, 1st leg, soccer match between Manchester United and Hull at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Rui Vieira/AP)

MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United closed in on the final of the English League Cup by beating injury-hit Hull 2-0 in the first leg of their semifinal thanks to second-half goals by Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini on Tuesday.

Mata put United on course for a ninth straight win in all competitions by tapping home from close range in the 56th minute and substitute Fellaini headed in a second in the 87th, before bounding to the Old Trafford touchline and into the arms of manager Jose Mourinho.

"The second goal is maybe the important goal," said Mourinho, who won the League Cup three times with Chelsea and is seeking to reach his first final as United manager.

The second leg is at Hull on Jan. 26 and United is a huge favourite to reach the final for a ninth time. Liverpool plays Southampton in the other semifinal, with the first leg on Wednesday.

United dominated throughout, unsurprisingly given the problems faced by an opponent which had an injury crisis so severe that it could only name six substitutes from a possible seven. Things got worse for Hull at Old Trafford, with two players — Markus Henriksen and Josh Tymon — helped off with apparent shoulder injuries.

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic absent because of illness, Wayne Rooney was given a start by United manager Jose Mourinho — handing the England captain another chance to break United’s goal-scoring record he currently shares with Bobby Charlton (249).

Rooney had two chances to get sole ownership of the record, the first being blocked early on before he shot wide from a narrow angle in the 51st after being released by Paul Pogba’s brilliant long pass.

He was substituted in the 59th minute, with his next chance coming against Liverpool in a Premier League match at Old Trafford on Sunday.

By the time Rooney had left the field, Mata had given United the lead — potentially from an offside position — and he couldn’t really miss after meeting a header across the face of goal from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, following a right-wing cross from Antonio Valencia.

Hull’s makeshift defence was marshalled impressively by Tom Huddlestone — a central midfielder playing at centre back — and United was mostly restricted to long-range attempts. One came from Pogba, who curled a free kick against the post in the 73rd.

A 1-0 scoreline would have been something of a success for Hull and its recently appointed manager Marco Silva, a Portuguese coach who has been dubbed the "new Jose Mourinho" after drawing comparisons with the United manager.

Yet, Fellaini’s goal, a far-post header from Matteo Darmian’s left-wing cross, put United in firm control ahead of the second leg as the Belgium midfielder repaid the faith shown in him by Mourinho.

Fellaini has been jeered by sections of the home fans in recent weeks but has been continually backed by Mourinho. The Stretford End was chanting his name by the end of the game.

"It’s the first step to Wembley," Mata said.

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